Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stranded On Def Row

If you're into hip-hop history, there's a lot to be read about the compilation Boston Goes Def, the first full-length rap album of all new, original material released out of Boston. It's talked about in interviews with Slick Rick (of FTI; not that Slick Rick):
"If given the opportunity, everyone should get themselves a copy of the first rap albums to come out of Boston." 

Top Choice Clique: "When the compilation Boston Goes Def (EDO G’s debut) dropped, it showed people in the game that Boston was definitely an untapped resource." 

Ed O.G: "The song FTI played that night was 'Suzie Q,' and it was one of the highlights of Boston Goes Def -- the 1986 compilation that also featured Boston rap pioneers like Rusty the Toejammer and Body Rock... 'It was a beautiful vibe!' Ed enthuses. 'In the late '80s, you could do an all-local show and people would come out to see it. You could have a show with RSO, FTI, the BK [Boogie Knights] Crew, and RCC [Roxbury Crush Crew], and you could fill up 4000 seats! They did shows in all these grimy places -- places where you could smoke weed. It was an ill, ill time."

Cadence of Raw Produce (taken from a discussion we had in the DWG forums): "I remember hearing the hype about that record for months and getting really amped for it to drop. Then when it did, my main complaint about it was that the studio recordings lacked the rawness of the home demos--many of which literally sounded like they were made in one take standing in front of a portable tape recorder... hearing the songs in (relatively) polished studio form just didn't sound right to me at the time. But I remember being really proud on behalf of Boston area hip hop when it dropped. And I felt like from that moment on you could see the development of local artists taking off, from homemade demos, to studio recordings. From beatboxing to drum machines and samplers. And from demo tapes to records. In retrospect, maybe it doesn't represent the best music our scene has produced, but that record, along with Lecco's Lemma were such big parts of a movement that was going on in the mid-late 80's that laid the groundwork for the Boston scene that emerged in the mid 90's. And that's a scene that launched Guru, Ed OG, the Source Magazine (for better or worse), to name a few and paved the way for a whole raft of 90's indie hip hop that you all know and love. And those are the guys who made Boston area artists BELIEVE we could do this. So to me, it's one of those records that also has to be judged in it's historical context."

...and it garnered full articles in The Boston Herald and The Boston Phoenix.

But no one ever talks about the sequel.

Def Row
came out the following year (1988) on the same label (Beautiful Sounds), though this time none of the proceeds seem to have been going to any charity. Once again, it's all produced by Mr. Beautiful and features some of the same artists, as well as some new ones. It gets a little confusing, though, because they don't always use the same names. For example, the White Boy Crew is back, but this time going by U.S.A. I wouldn't have even been sure it was the same guys (since there's another group that sounds just like 'em on this compilation called D.F.O.) except they helpfully refer to themselves as the White Boy Crew in the song. Ed O G (Edorock in those days) is back again, with not one but two songs. But this time, instead of his group being called The FTI Crew, they're credited as A-Train (which, extra confusingly, is also the name of the other MC who rhymes with Ed on one of the two songs).

So, why doesn't it ever get talked about? Well, partly probably because of that damn goofy album cover (credited to "D.B. Velveeta") scaring audiences away by making it look like a novelty joke album like The 2 Live Jews. The other reason is probably because a lot of it's, well... wack? But here's the thing about this album... have you ever tried to play a hip-hop classic to a younger head, like "The Show" or something off of Just-Ice's first album, and you can't really explain to them why it was so great at the time? It's like, "you don't understand what it was like when this first came out in the 80's; it was so new and wild. I guess it just doesn't age well as some other stuff." Well, this album ages wonderfully. Big, 80's beats, cuts, human beatboxes... stuff that when we heard it new we were like, "what is this? So corny!" now holds up in an era where nobody makes music like this anymore. It's like the Jurassic 5's concept, only genuinely authentic material.

But most of it is wack/corny even for it's time. The 3D Crew feature a really sappy R&B hook (sung by "Special Guest" Meg Lyons) and keyboard hook on their love song, "Trust Me." The girl group China Down's rhymes on "Just Rockin' the Mic" sound like they were written by Mrs. Johnson's Third Grade English Class, with every word said in unison by both MCs:

"You know it's right.
Or do you wanna fight?
We'll battle you from dusk till dawn,
And even through the night.
The night?
The night.
Oh, go and fly a kite!
Because if you want to battle us,
You must have all your might.
Your might?
Your might.
Oh, sure you think you're right.
You battle us against your friend,
And it will be delight.
Your friend?
Your friend.
Oh, now it is the end."

And the Run-DMC-inspired "No Punks Allowed" and "The Boston Sound" feature embarrassingly rudimentary shouted rap lines over guitar-riff driven tracks. Actually, the guitar tracks (by Bruce Owens, P. Mullford and Mr. Beautful) aren't too bad, and hold up pretty well - that is until the breakdown, when the guitar player goes for his solo and kicks a little "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (seriously).

But hearing Ed O G or The Dilemma Crew kick some fun (if datedly simple) freestyle rhymes over old school beats the world will never create again is easily worth the price of admission. On The Rapmasters and DJ 2's "The Beat Please," a different, O.G. breakbeat is played over the hook each time.

So, some of it's great, some of it's terrible but in a great/fun way if you're prepared to not take it at all seriously... and some of it's just weird. First of all, between every song, there is a random soundbite, roughly 10 seconds long. There's a clip of classical music, a car chase, a porno movie, a country song, the signature theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly... and none of these clips have anything to do with the songs that follow. Like if the porno clip came before a song about sex, it would sort of make sense... but none of them do. It's like the producers said, "these rap kids like samples!" and reached into their bag of public domain.

Looking in the liner notes, the 3D crew dedicate one of their songs to Scott LaRock. Listening to the song, it's obvious why: it's a beat-for-beat, syllable-for-syllable remake of "The Bridge Is Over," called "The Battle's Over," where the lyrics have been changed to be about how Boston crews all get along now (or something). They even sing the same tunes Krs did in his song, in the same key; but they've replayed all the music on their own instruments and equipment, using light keyboards in place of BDP's classic piano loop; making the instrumental version sound like a Fisher Price remix.

And just like Boston Goes Def had the silly "Popeye Rap," Def Row also has a rap about children's material, this time about The Wizard of Oz. And it possibly takes the prize of the weirdest rap song of all time... ever... seriously. China Down return for a second song, this time with the Noble Villians, to record "Yellow Brick Road." One of China Down sings an acapella rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but changes the lyrics to refer to MC Land; then they rap about the place, telling us it's "where the beats are always def... Where the party's always always thumpin'; and the MC's are the best." They talk about how a mysterious man materialized to stop time so their funky rap party could last forever. The beat features some keyboards, a kinda fun bassline, and a lot of vocal samples from The Wizard of Oz movie. They use the sound effect of the Wicked Witch laughing constantly - and it's not in the background. At one point, it comes between every line of an MC's verse, like an insane commentary. It also uses the theme from The Twilight Zone on the hook. And while China Down told us how fresh MC Land was, the Noble Villains have an entirely different take on the place. One of raps about how he was a superstar MC until one day he was pulled into a fiery pit during a party and sucked into MC Land, where he lost his soul and his mic skills ("I am a victim of a real crazy prank; first I was rockin' a party and somehow I got yanked. Fell through a big hole full of smoke and flame. The man with no soul would be my new name."). Why it's a great place for China Downa nd a terrible place for The Noble Villains I have no idea. It ends with him crying, disgraced, "with the word 'shame' written across my face." Then the other guy also raps (whispering his entire verse) about having no soul, in this case after getting struck by lightning in his apartment. He eventually encounters a troll and finds a monster's castle, and the monster tells him (in a fully processed, scary monster voice) that he can escape if only he can believe: "BELIIIEEEVVVVVVVVVEEEE!!!" Then the girl from China Down comes back to reprise "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Top that, if you can!

Is it a classic? Noooo sir. But it's a delightful, historic look into the 80's and Boston hip-hop scenes that's a lot of fun... just so long as nobody's around to overhear what you're listening to and laugh at you. ;)


  1. Hey your sooo funny though! I was one of the rappers in chinadown you had to experience the whole rap we didnt have alot of creative control with the background music,actually we never professed to being hardcore rappers we actually were using this for an audition for a childrens show,in the inner city,if we had more creative control in the studio those beats and witch sounds definately wouldnt be there.I had many fans who love our sound the real sound of chinadown...and by the way thanks for the little promotion,even if you dont know what your talking about..Seriously though it was a fantasy rap the one about the yellow brick rock. We were known for the double dutch rap and we were actually one of the first female rap group in Boston, we tore the house down!!!! Many fans loved our sounds..You had to see it live..Where can i get the tape? I havent heard it in years,i would love to hear it.

  2. Thanks for posting! Glad to hear some back-story on that "Yellow Brick Road" track... makes sense that it was for a childrens' show, but it's still so crazy. That's not a diss; the song's a lot of fun, and definitely the most memorable moment of the entire tape. Did you guys and the Noble Villains record your parts together? Because they sound like they've got a different concept for the song than what you guys had.

    I'd love to hear that Double Dutch Rap!

  3. Thanks John for responding to my post...we were young female rappers from boston who spent hours creating various forms of rap not just the ordinary stuff.. we had visions of rap songs and created them before rap songs were being air played ,We would rap in front of some of the toughest rap crowds in boston and they loved it! when we were approached by steve magner/steven Barry we were sooo excited. The rapsbeats. we really wanted to put out were put to the side and we lost our creative control on the back beats,we definately love the hard baseline beats,that could take you on a hardcore rythmic ride.When your not in control of the money you just sometimes go with the flow. Wrong time wrong place,alot of the stuff you hear today in rap say for instance the rap songs we definately had been creating stuff like that.Back in the day..
    As for our collaboration with noble villains it was great !we all are from boston and the concept was the rappers finding different experiences in the land of rap oz...THey exlplained there experience and we explained ours maybe the blending wasnt smooth on
    tape but on stage it went off well, it was a parallel world of rappers with a little mystery.:) The third grade school comment was interesting that rap rockin on the mic was nice and not intended to be anything but that,some rappers would beat around the bush we didnt and the crowd really love it all sometimes we would take simple words and twist them but we could also take you on a Journey of poetry.. for instance we put it out,,they took note and the mood was set..Chinadown was comprised of Myself and My sister who is a master of rhymes you should hear them!!! We created chinadown in 1985..our crew cc crew of chilly cousins was another crew we created ,,all family. We had visions of grandeur and visions to uplift boston rap to the levels of respect and creativity, The dream is still vibrant,the goals are securely set We went to boston schools we soaked up the city around us, became a positive force to those around us and raised strong families ...We created rymes that boston could relate to ..those who knew boston so well and they appreciated the words....Onstage our ferocious spirit intertwind with our words because we wrote every line and lived every beat..When we rocked the mic we werent just standing there we became each word....Chinadown is not just a word but an experience,If there was a time machine we would take you back to visit all that we have seen and experienced in the music world of boston,exciting,happy,sad but most of all very liberating in the sense of
    we wanted to make history...

  4. Hey..

    I am RGT of the Extra F/X crew.

    My group on the album with the songs King of the Edit and This That.

    Thanks for not commenting that our songs were wack. In fact, the month that that "TAPE" came out we were featured in CMJ (College Music Journal) as having the nicest songs on that compilation.

    We were consistently one of the better groups on Leccos Lemma back then too!

    ( giving us mad props!)

    In any case, so more back history. Steve Barry was producer in name only becasue he fronted money. Our songs were produced by me. They were actually featured on Leccos Lemma, but Steve Barry wanted them on this "TAPE" because they had rated so high on the Leccos Lemma playlists.

    We layed down raw beats, cuts and inlays especially for the song "THIS THAT". We left the studio and a few weeks later we got a copy of "DEF ROW" and the songs had these wack keyboards put on them. So when that cat mentioned that the "RAW Sound" was gone from the original Leccos Recordings he was right. We hated those keyboards and did not authorize Steve to do it. But hey Steve Barry was a shady dude.

    He told the groups that this was going to be an album like Boston Goes Def. We thought Vinyl. comes out as a tape, which is why it did not do well. What Dj spins a tape at a party, especially back then. The album cover did not help either.

    Next, Steve Barry wants to sgn me to an album deal. We record some songs then he gives me the contract. Its not a record deal, its a production contract. He records and fronts money and then tries to sell the contract and pocket dough. He never intended to put out my record. I never signed the deal.

    In any case, Extra F/X (MC RGT and NRG aka "The Noble Rapping Genius" were more than happy to be on this project..even though we never got paid.

  5. Hey, thanks for posting!

    Yeah, I really can't imagine what the thinking was behind that album cover. It's a flawed, screwy album for sure; but definitely has a ton of great history.